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Published on : Friday, August 19, 2016
VisitScotland’s new Chair John Thurso is a man of impeccable Scottish pedigree. He was born John Sinclair in Caithness, and became the fifth generation of his family to represent the area in the House of Commons.
He still sleeps in the room in the family home where he was born. Indeed, his great, great, great, great grandfather was also Sir John Sinclair of Ullbster, renowned for recording the economic performance of Scotland in the Old and New Statistical Accounts, up to 1845.The present day Sir John of Ullbster, as 3rd Viscount Thurso, was an hereditary peer between 1994 until 1999, when the Labour Government abolished most hereditary peerages. In 2001, he was elected Liberal Democrat MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, until 2015 when he was defeated by the SNP’s Paul Monaghan. He returned to the House of Lords after winning a by-election to fill a vacancy for the remaining Liberal Democrat hereditary peers.
His Mum, the daughter of Colonel Robertson who led the Seaforth Highlanders in the First World War, was a PE teacher at Wick Academy before the Second World War and then into the 1950s.
However, he rejects any suggestion that he is ‘too pucka’ to be running Scotland’s tourism organisation. And he talks at length, and with passion, about his love for the hospitality industry and his achievement in building several prestigious hospitality businesses in the UK.
“Before stepping into politics, I was an hotelier all of my professional life. I absolutely know what it’s like to be there late at night looking after a difficult guest or worrying about the ‘under-departed’, the euphemism for those who hog their rooms while other guests have arrived and there’s nowhere for them to stay.”
His knowledge of the hospitality industry and his leadership in building luxury hotel brands is second to none in Scotland, so he is ideally suited to understand the seasonal challenges and vagaries of the industry.
“I got into the hospitality business by accident really. I worked during the summer holidays. My father had turned a Caithness shooting lodge into a hotel and during the summer I would get a pound a day for washing the dishes. For a short period, it was a wonderful hotel.”
This was a lodge at Loch Dubh, near Altnabreac, in the remote peatbogs of the Flow County where the train halts on request on its northward journey to Wick and Thurso.
In the late 1960s, his careers master at Eton encouraged a long-haired 16-year-old who was not keen on joining the army, going to university or working in the City to look at a career in hospitality.
“I had this long list of what I didn’t want to do. The master opened up a drawer and pulled out a dusty application for the Reeves-Smith Scholarship to become a management trainee at The Savoy. He said: ‘What about hotels?’ And I couldn’t think of any reason not to look at this.”
After taking a gap year as a cowhand busting broncos on a Mid-West ranch, he went on to become a management trainee at The Savoy Group. It was five years of hard graft and learning: polishing crystal and perfecting table service, with a year in the massive kitchens, a year as a silver-service waiter, six months as a white-gloved bar tender, and then ending up on reception at Claridges Hotel, where he eventually became the reception manager. After a year in this role, he was sent to be the general manager of the Hotel Lancaster on the Champs-Elysees in Paris.
“There I was, a 27-year-old running a five-star hotel in the centre of Paris. The whole thing was a wonderful accident because a careers master had waved a dusty form at me.”